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Vaccination is pet owners' first line of defense from rabies

Monday, November 4, 2013 - 12:01 am

I love dogs. I respect them. I admire them, but a couple of weeks ago a dog bit me.

I have lived most of my life with dogs and have always considered myself good at reading their behavior, but this time I was fooled. A small dog on a leash, wagging his tail went for my knee. I sincerely believe the owner was as stunned as I. I inspected the damage. The dog had barely broken the skin, hadn't even torn my corduroys. The owner explained his animal was vaccinated and wanted to know if I would like his information for the doctor. I politely refused thinking it was nothing.

Apparently I was wrong. A few hours later I inspected my leg again and found four distinct tooth marks, with blood and a large bruise. My husband took one look and told me to go to the doctor.

My doctor was stumped. Because I hadn't taken the man's name, and we didn't know where the dog was, she wasn't sure if she should tell me to get rabies shots or not. She called the Indiana State Department of Health, and a “Dr. House,” believe it or not, told her that because the dog was on a leash and the man had said the dog was vaccinated I shouldn't worry about it. The last case of a person being bitten by a rabid dog in Indiana occurred in 1989.

I was fine, but it made me curious as to what risk we all have of contracting rabies. So I headed out to Fort Wayne Animal Care and Control for a chat with the director, Belinda Lewis.

According to Lewis, despite the fact that there haven't been cases of rabies from a canine bite since 1989 there still is a risk. The greatest, though, is from wild animals. High-risk species for carrying rabies are bats, raccoons, skunks and foxes. Rabies can commonly be found in the Indiana bat and skunk populations. it is considered endemic to those two populations. That means bats carry bat rabies and the skunk population carries skunk rabies. Raccoons, on the other hand, would have to be bitten by another rabid wild animal to contract rabies; it is not endemic to their population.

Fall is the time when small creatures look for a snug place to stay over the winter. Bats are more likely to try to come into homes at this time, looking for a place to hibernate.

It is now, Lewis said, that people and pets are more likely to come into contact with these animals. The best way to protect yourself is to make sure your own pets are vaccinated for rabies. It is more likely your dog or cat will come in contact with the home invader before you do, and they cannot tell you what happened.

The best thing to do if you find an animal in your home, as long as it is not in your attic, is to call Animal Care and Control, and they will remove it. If it is in the attic, a trained pest removal service needs to remove it.

If your pet came in contact with the animal, either through a bite or proximity, and has had its rabies vaccination it will be quarantined and the bat will be sent to the Indiana State Department of Health for testing. Be sure you do not throw the bat away or mangle its head. The brain is what will be tested. If the bat is still alive, place a bucket or kettle over it, but make sure it is weighted so it doesn't wriggle out underneath.

Because bats are so small the state needs the whole body for testing. For most other species they just need the head. Vector Control of the Allen County Health Department acts as a courier for these cases, transporting them as soon as the sample is ready. A decomposed animal or one whose brains have been mangled by a tennis racket or other object may not make a viable sample. That means if the sample is no good or the animal escaped, a person who has been bitten must immediately go through the shot process. If your pet was exposed and its vaccinations are not up to date it will need to be euthanized. If the pet has been vaccinated it will need to be quarantined for 45 days.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and prevention “Rabies has one of the highest case-fatality ratios of any infectious disease.” The disease is progressive encephalitis caused by the lyssavirus. According to the CDC symptoms can include headache, fever or general weakness and discomfort. There could be an itching sensation at the site of the bite. This will progress within days to symptoms of cerebral dysfunction, anxiety, confusion, and agitation. As the disease continues, there can be delirium, abnormal behavior, hallucinations, and insomnia, followed by death.

There are at least two ways a person can get rabies from a bat, Lewis said, just like your pet. Proximity is one. If someone is sleeping in a room and wakes up to find a bat flying around he or she should call Animal Care and Control. The theory is a bat's bite is so small that someone could sleep through it and not realize he or she had been bitten, so the bat should be tested. The second instance is a bite when the person is conscious. A bite might only amount to a scratch, but it could still be enough to infect someone with rabies. By the time an animal's saliva carries the disease the animal is in the final stages and will die within 10 days of the bite. That is why if a vaccinated animal bites someone, and the animal can be found, it will be quarantined. If the animal does not die, the person should be in the clear. If it is a wild animal, or the animal has not been vaccinated, it will need to be euthanized immediately and tested for rabies.

According to David Fiess, director of Vector Control so far in 2013 in Allen County there has been one case of a rabid bat, with six in 2012, one each in 2011 and 2010, nine in 2009, and none in 2008 and 2007.

Lewis attributes the jump in 2012 to the drought conditions. There were more bats that were weakened from the lack of insects and bats were getting into homes earlier and more often. Fiess said in 2012, 54 bats were tested but only six were positive for rabies. Lewis said people should remember their first line of defense against rabies is to make sure their pets have their vaccinations up to date.